Bear Grylls on survival myths and mistakes

Bear Grylls, best known as the fearless host of “Man vs. Wild,” now hosts “Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls” Mondays on NBC. Before that, he was climbing the summit of Mount Everest and crossing the North Atlantic in an open inflatable boat. Here, in an original piece for Yahoo! Travel, he debunks dangerous survival myths and cautions against the most common rookie mistakes:

Survival myths

Myth 1: One of the most common myths is that if your car breaks down in the desert, you should walk away and try to find help. That is not a good idea—people die because of it! Thinking it’s only a few miles to the nearest town, they’re found dead two or three miles from their car because they underestimated how brutal and tiring the desert can be.

Stay where you are, make yourself safe, and wait for rescue.

Myth 2: People think that because water is clear and free-running in a mountain stream, it’s fine to drink it. In actuality, you don’t know what’s in that stream. There could be a dead animal upriver!

Clear, clean-looking fresh water isn’t necessarily safe to drink. You should always boil water before you drink it to make sure you don’t get giardiasis, which can make you throw up or give you diarrhea. Clear water isn’t necessarily clean water, and beware of mountain streams.

Myth 3: Another common myth is that if you’re lost for any length of time, you’ve got to find food. That really isn’t true, and you can actually survive for weeks and weeks without it. Your priorities should be finding shelter and water, especially since in most places you’ll be dead in three days without water. Eating food will also dehydrate you faster, so focus on getting water before food.

Rookie mistakes

I made my first rookie mistake was when I was about 8. I was with my dad in the mountains when a storm came down, and we thought, “Oh, we know the way back down the mountain, we’ll just head down.” But we couldn’t see where we were going and we ended up heading the wrong way.

We spent the whole night wandering around, absolutely exhausted, disoriented, and very cold. Finally, by good fortune, we stumbled across a little trail and eventually found a way back. The lesson there is if there’s a blizzard, don’t try and beat it. Concentrate on making yourself safe and getting out of the wind; find shelter however you can. It’s the same in a desert sandstorm. People push on in sandstorms thinking they can find a way out when in reality they’re never going to beat it and should focus on staying sheltered and safe.

One of the biggest mistakes I see is when people with egos write checks their bodies can’t cash. A classic example is when people get summit fever. They get close to a mountain and when they run out of time and energy, they push on even when the signs are saying they should turn back. They end up stuck in the mountain in the dark or dropping off the mountain the wrong way because they get too tired. Summit fever is a very dangerous problem; it kills people on mountains because they start breaking their own rules.

Often, people make a rookie mistake by going off on their own on what they think is a simple hike, and they don’t tell anyone where they’re going or when they’ll be back. Even a nice, easy hike can turn very ugly if you get lost or twist an ankle and no one knows you’re missing or where to look for you. No matter how modest the trek, tell people where you’re going and when you’re due back. That way, you know that there will be help coming if you don’t return.

Another dangerous rookie mistake is when people underestimate how debilitating altitude and the effects of altitude sickness can be. Everything is worse and more extreme at high altitude; you’re fighting dehydration, altitude sickness, the cold, and the wind. An action that’s totally straightforward to perform at sea level can become impossible at high altitude. High up in the mountains I’ve seen people—myself included—reduced to crawling on their hands and knees along something you’d just run up at sea level. Survival and even simple actions become much harder at high altitudes.

Sometimes, though, you need to break your own rules and trust your instincts. A good adventurer knows when to do that and when not to. There have been times while we’ve been filming when it was right to push on through a storm, and then there have been times when it seemed right to follow a steep mountain ravine down a path and it actually turned out to be pretty precarious and dangerous.

You have to give yourself a large margin of error, at least in the wild. You’ve got to anticipate the worst, and consider that if you or someone else gets injured you need to be able to still carry out your decision. And take your time to make that decision, because the repercussions of your choices are ones that you’ll be living with for a long time.

Ultimately, though, the best way to learn survival methods comes from seeing and doing. And if you don’t want to go through the experience yourself, you can see rookies learn how to survive by trial and error and deal with the consequences of their mistakes by watching “Get Out Alive with Bear Grylls” on NBC, Monday nights at 9.